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 TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Mike Stoops knew what people were saying.
How could he not?
His Arizona Wildcats were 2-6 after an ugly 21-20 home loss to Stanford on Oct. 20. They seemed destined to spend the holidays at home for a ninth straight year, extending the Pac-10's longest bowl drought.
Stoops would be fired at season's end, or so the speculation went, and someone else would take a crack at reviving the fortunes of the only Pac-10 football program that has never been to the Rose Bowl.
``You hear it,'' Stoops said after practice this week. ``Some of it's justified. I've been around, and I know how these things work. I really believe you get what you deserve.''
Then came a trip to Seattle on Oct. 27. Trailing by 15 points with 13 minutes to go, the supposedly worn-out Wildcats rallied for a 48-41 victory over Washington. Facing third-and-7 at the Huskies 27, quarterback Willie Tuitama hit Mike Thomas for the winning touchdown with 2:07 to play.
The play launched a three-game win streak, including a 34-24 victory over then-No. 2 Oregon on Nov. 15. Only No. 8 USC has as many consecutive wins among Pac-10 teams.
During the streak, Arizona president Robert Shelton quelled the can-Stoops movement by announcing that the coach would be back for a fifth season in 2008. Stoops, who is 17-28 and under contract through 2010, could breathe again.
``I just knew we were playing better than our record,'' Stoops said. ``We just didn't get any breaks. We had some tough competition. We just weren't aligned right.''
Now the talk is about whether the Wildcats can knock off rival Arizona State on Saturday night in Tempe - and a possible bowl bid for the Wildcats (5-6, 4-4 Pac-10).
``Three wins later, everything's hunky dory,'' linebacker Spencer Larsen said with a chuckle. ``Honestly, I don't think anyone has a handle on what happened.''
Campus was literally buzzing on Wednesday evening as the team worked out under the lights at Arizona Stadium. Piped-in crowd noise simulated the atmosphere at Sun Devil Stadium, which will be sold out for the game. The din could be heard all the way over at Old Main in the heart of campus.
No one had to ask what the noise was all about. It's ASU week - the time of year when football passions inflame a basketball-obsessed school.
``There is hatred all around campus,'' cornerback Antoine Cason said. ``You see the students. That is all they are talking about. Oregon was a great game, but ASU is what we have to do. It is a good atmosphere to be in. The students are all behind you and everybody talks about it.''
Of course, the Wildcats said the same thing last November, when they rode a three-game win streak into the Territorial Cup game. A victory over the mediocre Sun Devils at home would have sent Arizona to a bowl game. But the Wildcats came out tight, fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter and lost 28-14.
Stoops senses a difference in his team as it prepares for ASU this year.
``There's no question we're a lot better than we were last year at 6-6,'' he said.
One reason is Arizona's offense, which has finally found its stride under new coordinator Sonny Dykes. The conservative Stoops has allowed Dykes to ditch the running game and throw caution - and everything else - to the wind.
The Wildcats have scored 116 points in their last three games, and Tuitama has 10 touchdown passes against two interceptions in that span.
No one seems to care that the Wildcats rush for a paltry 79.7 yards per game, fewer than all but six major-college teams.
Another reason for Arizona's turnaround can't be found on the stat sheet.
The Wildcats say they are more relaxed - and they're taking a cue from the 45-year-old Stoops, who might want to try decaf more often.
On the sideline, Stoops is among the most animated coaches in college football. He and his staff routinely receive warnings from the officials to stay off the field.
But as the Wildcats stumbled in midseason, Stoops said he felt his team was straining. He looked to himself to change the attitude.
``I took the blame,'' Stoops said. ``I feel like we started pressing.''
The players picked up on the message and began to perform better.
``As players, we really don't know how he feels or what is on the line for him, but he can get really tight,'' Cason said. ``For him to relax makes us relax and play loose. We know we can come back to the sidelines if we mess up without getting chewed out.''
Now the question is whether the Wildcats can complete their turnaround with a victory over 13th-ranked Arizona State. Instead of turning in their gear, the Wildcats could begin planning for a bowl trip.
``It (won't be) a Rose Bowl, but it would be a statement that we've come a long way, and we're headed in the right direction,'' said Larsen, a senior. ``It's so important that we win.''

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